Ingenious use of details and motifs from the Divine Comedy, and a lively picture of the literary culture of post-bellum New England, distinguish this juicy debut historical mystery.
The year is 1865. The eponymous Club, whose members include Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, meet regularly to plan promoting American interest in Dante’s masterpiece (by now Longfellow’s translation is well underway). But Harvard’s tenacious devotion to its classical curriculum discourages such eclecticism (“Italy is a world of the worst passions and loosest morals”). Moreover, several violent murders clearly inspired by punishments meted out to sinners in Dante’s Inferno claim highly visible victims (a Massachusetts Chief Justice, a prominent clergyman, a wealthy art patron). The scholars therefore turn detectives, bumping heads with, among others, Boston’s harried police chief, “mulatto” patrolman Nicholas Rey, and “minor Pinkerton detective” Simon Camp. Crucial clues to the killer’s identity lurk in information possessed by a “disgraced” professor, entomological research performed by botanist Louis Agassiz, a series of sermons attended by wounded Civil War veterans, and standing evidence (so to speak) of the notorious Fugitive Slave Law. Author Pearl, a 26-year-old Yale Law School graduate and Dante scholar, offers a wealth of entertaining detail, but his fictional skills need sharpening: there are a few confusing shifts in viewpoint; in at least one scene a character speaks up before we’ve been told that he’s present; and the eventual capture of the villain is inexplicably interrupted by a lengthy omniscient account of his personal history and developing motivations. Most readers will forgive such lapses, however—thanks to an intricate and clever plot, and the author’s distinctive characterizations of the gentle, courtly Longfellow, quick-tempered Lowell, and mercurial, ironical Holmes.
Great fun figuring out whodunit and why: a devil of a time.